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The Tug Valley
by John Alexander Williams

On a map, the Tug Valley looks like the shortest distance between two important points: the Great Appalachian Valley and the Oho River.  But maps can be deceptive, as the colonial soldiers who gave the Tug Fork its name found out during the Big Sandy campaign of 1756.  The campaign was an episode of the French and Indian War.  With the enemy entrenched at the Forks of the Ohio River (the site of modern-day Pittsburgh) following the disastrous defeat of Braddock's expedition in 1755, this seemed the best way for Virginians to get at the Shawnee towns in Ohio, the home base of the warriors who raided the frontier with impunity in the months following Braddock's defeat.  And so a force of some 340 frontiersmen, accompanied by Cherokee allies, set off from the New River settlements in February 1756.  Their purpose was what today would be called a "search-and-destroy" mission.  Their commander was Andrew Lewis, later to be the hero of the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774.

No one was a hero in the Big Sandy campaign.  The idea was to move quickly down the valley and to supplement limited provisions by hunting.  But the terrain proved too difficult and the woods too bare of game.  Many of the soldiers grew hungry and mutinous; they complained, as one of the officers wrote in his journal, "that they were fainty & weak with hunger. . . & that there was no game in the mountains nor no appearance of a Level Country."  When Lewis attempted to stave off a mutinous retreat on March 13,1756, by drawing a line and urging all patriotic men "that was willing to Serve their County & share his Fate to go with him," all the officers but only about 30 other soldiers stepped forward.    A wholesale and ignominious flight back to the settlements followed.  Meanwhile, to stave off starvation some of the men had been reduced to boiling and eating leather thongs or tugs - - hence the name, Tug Fork.

The difficult environmental conditions of the valley also influenced the drawing of the Virginia-Kentucky border in 1792, when floodwater led the commissioners appointed to fix that boundary to mistake the Tug Fork for the Big Sandy's principal branch instead of the Levisa Fork, where the boundary would have been drawn had the commissioners followed their instructions precisely.  In 1863, of course, this line became the West Virginia-Kentucky boundary and the valley was subdivided again, leaving Buchanan County behind in Virginia because the makers of West Virginia did not want a third panhandle protruding southward the way the state's other panhandles reached northward and eastward.

Settlers from Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland began occupying the valley during the 1790's, distributing themselves among the sheltered hollows and narrow strips of bottom land and developing a mixed economy based on subsistence farming, hunting and the harvest of forest resources such as wild herbs and timber.  But it was very symbolic of the valley's future that the important decisions could still be made by persons in distant places who had only the haziest knowledge of local conditions.  The decision to include this territory in West Virginia was one example.  As late as 1890, most residents of the valley, whether in West Virginia or Kentucky, had to go outside of it to places like Logan, Pikeville, or Catlettsburg for basic government or business services.  The coming of modern transportation in the form of the Norfolk & Western Railroad did not necessarily change this.  The railroad promoted the growth of towns like Williamson and Matewan and the creation of Mingo County, but in practical terms it shifted the focus of final authority still further afield, to places such as Charleston, Huntington, and Bluefield; Roanoke, Louisville and Philadelphia.  Paradoxically, the complicated human and geographic divisions in the valley made it easier to rule from afar.  Much of the valley's turbulent history can be read as attempts by its residents to assert and maintain their autonomy in the face of this enduring pattern.

John Alexander Williams is the director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University.  John is a recognized scholar of West Virginia history and has published West Virginia, A Bicentennial History and West Virginia and the Captains of Industry.

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